The Other Alcott

The artist obscured by her famous sister (Concord and Boston, Massachusetts, London, Paris and villages, Rome, 1868 – 1879): Calling all feminists, aspiring artists, historical fiction buffs, and readers who relish genteel prose and old-fashioned letters with big, thought-provoking, timely themes.

Now couldn’t be more fitting to read The Other Alcott published last year, as 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the never-out-of-print Little Women. This is a March sister story we didn’t know, about May Alcott, one of the four sisters (Jo, Meg, Lizzie, Amy) depicted in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved children’s classic, drawn from her family. Amy March, inspired by May, became an acclaimed painter during an important historical era. The Other Alcott brings her to life in this packed-with-history 400+ page novel.

What we know of May was how she was portrayed in her sister’s literary hands when May was twelve. While the book was a huge, much-needed financial boost for the impoverished Alcott family, ironically, Louisa considered it and sequels Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys “hokum,” balking at being pigeon-holed into writing them by her publisher. (She also wrote under a pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, hiding her identity and gender to be free to write like the maverick family she was born into).

May is twenty-eight when her story begins.

The epistolary format is used quite effectively from time to time. The novel opens with a sorrowful letter May wrote to Louisa but never sent, revealing the two had been estranged for quite a while and that theirs was always a difficult relationship:

“I long to turn back the clock and mend the rift between us, though now that I think on it, if I could go back in time when would I go back to? When was our relationship ever simple?”

May “favored happy endings,” so from the beginning we’re lured into wondering if she and Louisa ever made up? What caused the serious rift?

Elise Hooper is a history and literature teacher who grew up near the Alcott’s much-publicized home in Concord, Massachusetts: Orchard House. (They moved over twenty times before settling there.) It’s fair to say Hooper has been intrigued by this unorthodox family since childhood.

Father Bronson was a philosopher, member of the Transcendentalist movement who communed with nature and shunned traditional values, leaving his family so poor he needed his neighbor and philosopher friend Ralph Waldo Emerson to support the family until Louisa takes over. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, another neighbor and transcendentalist.)

Curiosity about May led the author to dig extensively into her history to find out what she could, and then imagined the rest.

Expect to see painterly prose expressing May’s love of painting (“chokeberry bushes, luminous in a hue straight from a tube of vermilion paint”), and mostly real historical figures. Some famous, but it’s the cast of also unknown female artists May encounters and befriends during the course of her artistic development that add another layer to the novel’s richness.

Orchard House is now a museum, evoking the Alcotts’ past like Hooper’s novel.

Orchard House: Home of Little Women Trailer (2018)

As a fan of Author’s Notes that distinguish fact from fiction Hooper’s are exemplary: a wonderfully informative nine-page Afterword, followed by another lengthy Conversation with the Author, describing “what became of” the historical female artists. They’re introduced to us in five chronological parts that track May’s travels to pursue her art: to Boston, London, Rome, Paris and two charming French villages.

The focus of the novel, of course, is what became of May?

May was shaped by an outgoing, winsome personality, in extreme contrast to Louisa’s solitary, brooding soul; her non-conformist family; art masters she mentored under; artist friendships; infatuations (one with her art teacher) and a genuine love; and American and European art movements of the day.

Unlike Louisa, she wanted to have a happy marriage and an art career. Family obligations dictated by Louisa often interrupted May’s work, contributing to her resentment of her prickly sister (though she was dedicated to her ailing, toiling mother, “Marmee,” an abolitionist, a suffragette like Louisa.) She longed to make it on her own, influenced by poverty and burdened by indebtedness to Louisa, so she too-willingly adhered to the limiting constraints of the male-dominated, conservative art worlds to gain acceptance, sell her work. Conflicted by admiration for Louisa’s fierce independence (though she did not want to be a spinster), and a range of disquieting emotions as judgmental Louisa believed May’s “desires for comfort, happiness, and stability to be shortcomings, moral failures, signs of selfishness.”

Depicting Amy March as self-indulgent is seen as the source of original tensions with Louisa. It was terribly humiliating (and unfair) to be viewed this way to a wide public adoring her sister’s book. May’s illustrations accompanied it, harshly criticized too. This double “pain of rejection” stuck with May affecting her self-confidence, her artistic exploration.

Hooper focuses her light on an age when women were fighting for equality in many arenas of society. Few art classes were even open to women, and Louisa paid for most of May’s.

In Boston, May was frustrated and stymied by the rigor of exercises in anatomical preciseness as the market was portraiture and photographic-like landscapes while her softer sensibilities were watercolors, something more flowing. She studied under a medical doctor-artist who grilled his students in anatomy; she struggled with sketching live models. She lived with Louisa at the defunct Bellevue Hotel (now condos), where Louisa feverishly immersed herself in non-stop writing to the detriment of her already compromised health. This swanky hotel in Beacon Hill signified Louisa’s increased earning power beyond the $1.50 she was paid for Little Women!

In London and Paris, May discovers “art lives in the galleries and museums,” but “in Rome, it’s everywhere.” A city filled with constant intersections between art and life,” enhancing connectedness to history and aestheticism.

May gets advice from the likes of Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Helen Knowlton, Anne Whitney, and fictional Alice Bartol, fashioned from the real Alice Bartlett and Lizzie Bartol. “Stake a claim on your ambitions, counsels Jane. “If you wait around for other people to define you, you’ll be saddled with their expectations – and that’s dangerous territory for a woman.”

It took years for May to figure that out. Her breakthrough comes when Mary Cassatt enters the picture. Still an uphill battle, soul-searching the artist she was and the one she wanted to be. Mary was in the midst of her own existential crisis, at the cusp of abandoning the prestigious, obsessively competitive Paris Salons, eventually joining forces with what evolved into the Impressionist movement. Degas and Monet make a brief appearance.

The rise of Impressionism is symbolic of what May was up against. It takes most of the novel for her to summon the courage to break out of the mold, to be bold. You can see how far she came in her best known work, a small, striking painting, La Négresse, considered her masterwork.

“We’re all students, Helen Knowlton says. “This is one of the beauties of being an artist: there’s always more to learn.” May’s artistic journey offers lessons on how “to find something special inside ourselves.”

Was she ever able to find that special place inside herself to reconcile with Louisa? A poignant path worth taking.


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The Clairvoyants

Believing the unbelievable (Connecticut shoreline and Ithaca, New York; sometime after the late 90s): If you told me I’d be raving about a paranormal novel in which the central character – Martha Mary – sees the dead, I wouldn’t believe you.

The Clairvoyants is psychological intrigue that eclipses abnormal mysteries of the psyche to significant supernatural realms. With terrific prose, Karen Brown manages to pull off her parapsychological story so believably, blending past and present, truth versus lies or something much stranger. Stranger than the two unsolved deaths that haunt this tale of foresaken souls, living and dead.

A 19th century quote by Charles Webster Leadbetter, a clairvoyant and leader of the theosophy movement, introduces the surreal:

“And he will find them divisible into two great classes – those whom we call the living, and those others, most of them infinitely more alive, whom we so foolishly misname the dead.”

From the start, I wanted a psychic’s dictionary! (Plenty online). While theosophists have faith in otherworldly dimensions grounded in kindness, peacefulness, non-violence, the characters in this novel are not at peace. Far from it.

A better resource would be to sit in one of the author’s creative writing classes (she teaches at the University of South Florida) to hear her speak about the techniques she uses to create chilling psychic suspense: gothic elements and nature to heighten the somber mood, to plunge emotional depths and complexities.

To help set the mournful tone, you might want to listen to a piece of beautifully sad music – the Elgar cello – Martha hears at the ending. Written by British composer Edgar Elger after WWI, it’s gorgeously composed yet full of pain. Symbolic of the overall feel to the novel.

Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 | Xavier Phillips, Cello

Do you believe in ghosts? Extrasensory perceptions (ESP) as in seeing ghostly visions of the dead? Do you think someone who sees past events and haunted places is mentally ill? Or, could the unexplainable be possibly explained?

Karen Brown explores the possibility that if a person is acutely and chronically stressed, desperately lonely, craving love and affection, and there’s a strong genetic component to being taken in by clairvoyance, it’s possible that individual, like our narrator Martha, could experience weird phenomena outside the normal senses. To further her message, Martha’s younger (only by a year) sister Del had a psychotic break in her teens resulting in psychiatric hospitalization, then moved to assisted living, around the time a fifteen-year boy, David Pinney, was murdered. His death also marks the onslaught of Martha’s recurring ghost spirits, torturing her soul.

Eleven universities from around the world once or still study paranormal phenomena.  Might there be a shred of something to all of this?

Brown sets the supernatural stage in the opening pages by telling us about Martha’s great-grandfather’s occult manuals she uncovered in a barn on the family’s Connecticut property by the Long Island Sound.The titles of the manuals tip us off: Psychometry, Clairvoyance, and Thought-Transference and Psychism, Ghostology, and the Astral Plane. So do his marginal notes asking:

“What is the ethereal double? Who travels on the astral plane? How does the clairvoyant receive messages from the dead?”

Another early indicator that we’re in for something different is the Connecticut acreage was purchased in the 1890s, a timeframe that aligns to the theosophical movement, and that a portion was leased to a clairvoyant group that keeps reappearing: the Spiritualists by the Sea. They built a temple, and when Martha and Del were growing up the spiritualists lived in colorful cottages and played eerie organ music.

Martha and Del are peculiar characters, but they’re not the only ones. Their mother is buttoned-up, a cold fish who works at a prison store; their parents are divorced and their father is out of the picture; and the two girls are alienated from their much older sisters. Martha was expected to watch over impulsive, promiscuous, seductive Del, a love-hate relationship of resentment, jealousy, isolation. Feelings of abandonment loom large.

Before Del had her mental breakdown, the two sisters’ idea of play, always instigated by Del, was fortunetelling, conducting seances. “Lying was what we did best together,” says Martha, who seems an honest broker until you’re not so sure she is. You’re led to believe Martha is the stronger of the two, until things shift and then you’re not so sure about that too. What you do know is both sisters are coming-of-age psychologically disturbed, awfully damaged.

Another abnormal character is William Bell, whom Martha meets when she goes to Cornell University and gets deeply entangled with him. Martha is, not surprisingly, drawn to abandoned places, so she focuses her studies on photographing abandoned sites. William teaches photography at the college, obsessed with photographing vulnerable people. When revealed what that entails, you’ll get the creeps. At first, Martha’s loneliness fits William, an only child whose parents are gone, so she puts up with his oddities, evasiveness, and disappearances, telling herself this is what it means to be consumed by one’s art. Don’t be fooled!

Martha hoped when she left Connecticut she’d also leave behind her ghostly apparitions, which begin on the first line of chapter one. Only seven, she claims to have seen her great aunt whom she’s named after. Next comes David Pinney’s persistent ghost, which is why she’s“doubtful that freedom would ever really be mine.” Martha’s demons don’t go away. As soon as she arrives at Cornell, she glimpses the second unsolved death – the ghost of Mary Rae Swindel – central to the plot.

“I could distinguish them from the living by the way they stared at me, their expressions anxious and filled with longing, as if there appearances had been conjured by the despair of a lost love.”

The author very effectively and consistently uses secluded landscapes, abandoned places, and gloomy weather to achieve a spooky effect. (“The elm cast shadows on my white plaster wall, and its branches, sheathed in ice, clicked together like bones.”) She knows these areas from personal experiences having grown up in Connecticut and graduated from Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Now living in Florida, none of its sunshine warms this ominous story.

While there are two warmer characters, they’ve got problems too. One is a painter, Anne, friends with William; the other Martha’s landlord, Geoff, a British fellow characterized as a “Heathcliff type,” a nod to the American Gothic classic Wuthering Heights.

It’s not just the thermometer that registers chilly but the emotional one. Lots of sex, characters searching for warmth, but their acts have nothing to do with love and grow increasingly perverse.

Del’s time at a psychiatric hospital wasn’t pure fiction. Brown tells us the beautiful film star, Gene Tierney, reported to have had seventeen breakdowns in the forties and fifties, was hospitalized there too, enduring electroshock treatments like Del did decades later.

When it’s hard to distinguish reality you can’t help but wonder if other references to key places were inspired by real ones. The acknowledgements provide some answers. The most revealing reference, though, is the course Martha is taking on Women and Grief.

I’m still not a believer, but this was one heck of a believable tale.


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My Oxford Year

My Oxford YearTimeless lessons on love and life learned in a timeless city (Oxford, England, present-day): A big shout out to My Oxford Year. It’s everything you want in feel-good, romantic fiction. I’m shouting having just given up on a stretch of dark, rambling novels, cheerful this one shines bright and crisp.

Due in part to an uplifting premise: idealistic, brainy, red-headed Julia Roberts-like, twenty-five-year-old “Ella from Ohio” seizes her “Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience” to study at Oxford (Victorian literature; Victorian poetry introduces each chapter) on a Rhodes scholarship, vowing a year of “pushing boundaries, and exploring new things.” Largely, though, because Julia Whalen knows her way around words.

While this is Whalen’s debut as a novelist, she’s no stranger to words. A screenwriter asked to rewrite the words for the screenplay Oxford by Allison Burnett, which inspired this novel, she’s also been tuned to expressing words as an actress and as a narrator of a bestselling list of audiobooks like Kristan Hannah’s newest The Great Alone and Gone Girls. Now it’s her turn to craft “words that hold clues.”

Ella Durran, despite all her best laid game plans, has fallen for a man with a secret: strikingly handsome Jamie Davenport known for breaking hearts. They meet under the worst circumstances, swiftly set up in a series of cinematic scenes. No surprise that a movie is in the works.

Ella arrives in Oxford disoriented and exhausted. On her way to a fish and chip restaurant, she’s nearly run over by Jamie driving a snazzy, Aston-Martin silver convertible with a blond passenger. Soon there’s an incident in said restaurant that causes a commotion when Jamie accidentally crashes into Ella whose carrying her meal with a sampler of messy sauces, resulting in Ella barking “you posh prat.” Next we find Ella seated in her first class stunned that Jamie’s filling in for the legendary English literature professor she’d hung her dreams on.

You’ll laugh and smile page after page at Ella and Jamie’s cut-to-the chase, witty, teasing repartee, full of sexual innuendo. Their off-to-a-terrible-start relationship contrasts with an eccentric trio of lovable friends she instantly hits it off with: Charlie, her dormmate at Magdalen College, one of Oxford’s thirty-eight architectural marvels, with a flair for the overly dramatic and a passion for literature that matches hers; classmate Maggie with pink hair; and their mutual friend Tom, an ex “linguistics, philology, and phonetics” Oxonian Maggie has a crush on but he’s so absent-minded she can’t even get to first base. These fun “Three Musketeers” are with Ella from beginning to end, teaching her the cultural ropes, watching her back.

Oxford University's Beautiful Colleges

We get to know this wacky cast of characters through sharp, erudite, comical dialogue that also conveys interesting tidbits about Oxford’s history, historic sites and hangouts. The novel’s cover is a charming rendition of its famed Bridge of Sighs and Thames River rowing tradition. Later, Jamie’s upper crust parents enter the picture, adding more colorful characters and the aristocratic side.

Oxford Bridge of Sighs
By Brian Jeffery Beggerly [CC BY 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

The author’s prose feels real and emotional for another reason. She has deep personal ties to Oxford, explained in an illuminating essay, the kind of About the Book guide you wish all novels included. In a unique study abroad program, Julia Whalen spent her junior year immersed in Oxford, where she “survived the culture shock” and “loved it as fiercely as you can love something that doesn’t love you back.” She’s also a Rhodes finalist and, like Ella, deeply affected by the loss of her father. But she makes it clear this is Ella’s story not hers.

The author labels My Oxford Year a “romantic dramedy.” A term that nicely sums up it feels more lighthearted than it actually is. Ella’s no shrinking violet and her friends are amusingly over-the-top. yet when she discovers Jamie’s secret your heartstrings will be tugged until you find yourself crying. All in all, you’ll come away joyful for an irresistible read lovingly depicting the City of Dreaming Spires. Ella, who narrates, sees Oxford as a “novel come to life.” Similarly, the novelist evokes Oxford as “history with a pulse.”

By SirMetal [Public domain]
from Wikimedia Commons

Ella may not be worldly (England is the first time she’s stepped outside of the US), but she’s clearly more than book smart to have successfully navigated DC politics, the world Ella has come from. A set-up that provides a fundamental conflict in this touching love story for she bears a precise expiration date. Her career is on the rise.

The novel opens just as she approaches the British customs official. Not the ideal time to receive a call from the newly departed White House chief of staff offering her a plume Washington job as education consultant for another rising star, a junior senator and widowed mother of three running for President. A quick thinker in spite of her jet-lagged condition, she finagles a deal to consult from Oxford for the year, which, of course, means romantic entanglements are seriously compromised and she’s on call 24/7. She juggles and manages that intrusive feat like a pro.

Not the case with Jamie who poses an existential threat to her “Oxford destiny” perhaps predictably, but you’ll relish the seduction so who cares. When Jamie gazes at her with his soulful blue eyes, she’s like “a boat caught in a current.” Beyond the physical seduction, she comes to understand how much deeper he is than that. If she wasn’t so rocked and stewed about his taking over the class of her professorial heroine, she might have gleaned Jamie’s poetic qualities simply by the nature of his poetry assignment. Jamie is all about feelings:

“To truly experience a poem, he mutters almost to himself, you need to feel it. A poem is alive, it has a voice. It is a person. Who are they? Why are they?”

Jamie’s lessons are about love and life and how far you’re willing to go for what really matters, if you can even figure out that profound question, dig really deep, and then come to grips with and act on that truth. “If you don’t open yourself up,” Jamie says, “how can you be surprised by life? And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?” Jamie’s definition of pushing those boundaries wasn’t quite what Ella had in mind.

Whalen describes Jamie’s mesmerizing eyes in a writing style that beautifully shows rather than tells. They are, Ella realizes:

“the color of this swimming hole I used to spend summers at as a kid, at the end of a trail, at the base of a waterfall. The color was so magical I was convinced if I could hold my breath long enough, swim deep enough, pump my legs hard enough, I’d discover the bottom wasn’t a bottom at all, but a portal to another world.”

So too can be said about My Oxford Year. Magical, it takes us to another world. To an ancient city that “belongs to everyone.” Delivering a universal message that speaks truth to us all.


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Winter Sisters 2

Dedicated to “girls and women everywhere” – Profiles in courage and compassion for the ages (Albany, New York; March to June 1879): Eight years ago, we came to know Robin Oliveira’s indomitable Mary Sutter, a civil war nurse who lifted our spirits in the face of medical horrors and prejudice against female doctoring. For all Oliveira’s fans (I’m one of them) clamoring for a sequel: Mary is back!

This time she’s waging a different kind of war, perhaps “more sinister than the brutality of artillery.” Fought on several fronts, this war is more intractable and less visible, defying a repressive old guard class system and heinous behaviors.

A war that calls for Mary to return to continue to fight for the rights of women, young and old, from all walks of life. A war that threatens to risk her reputation. Now a physician for the past twelve years, yet still fighting negative attitudes toward women in the profession as she ministers to marginalized women hospitals refuse to treat: prostitutes. This Mary’s primary fight though revolves around two innocent girls unprotected by a horrendously backward legal system.

Winter Sisters is layered and entangled. It also links to the emotional abuse of high-society women married to powerful men who treat them like servants or worse. Wealthy yet impoverished, a “life without agency” anathema to Mary.

A tall order! Though Mary is up to the task, she’s not the only champion. Others are also women, with one shining exception: a charming, young gentlemen. They are the brightness in this tale of darkness.

The novel’s setting and historical timeframe are key to the plotting and richness of the prose. Winter Sisters takes place in Albany over 112 days (you’ll see why that number matters) in 1879. In 1888, Albany and the entire East Coast were dealt a monster blizzard, known as the Great Blizzard or the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Albany received something like 45 inches of snow. Hundreds of people perished, like the parents of the titular two winter sisters.

In the opening sentence, we’re told Emma and Claire O’Donnell have vanished. For six torturous weeks and plenty of suspense no one has seen or heard from the “blizzard girls” as they infamously came to be known. They are presumed dead.

“The mystery of their whereabouts had become a question of sport, debated with passion in every tavern, prayer circle, factory, horsecar, railroad depot, restaurant, brewery, shop, and home.”

The author once called Albany home. It shows. Her regard for it’s fierce weather, stately Victorian architecture, and the impact of the Hudson River and Erie Canal on commerce and livelihoods is richly depicted.

The trade featured in the plot relying on navigable waterways is the lumber business. Gerritt Van der Meer is a lumber baron. His shy wife Viola is the dejected, lonely socialite. Their son, Jakob, twenty-one, is the gentleman of honor mentioned above. Gerritt is a selfish, condescending brute to Viola, whom Jakob is devoted to. A Harvard lawyer who gave in to his overbearing father’s familial demands to help run the business, which comes at great professional and personal sacrifice when he falls smitten with beautiful Elizabeth, Mary’s seventeen-year-old niece, a violin prodigy.

The beauty of music as a soothing, healing antidote to the sordid story (the author doesn’t flinch, again, in describing hard-to-stomach medical details; she was a critical care nurse) involving the two sisters. “Beauty and horror always met side by side.”

Oliveira chose a year after the real historical blizzard to set her third historical novel (I Always Loved You is a gorgeous tale about the passionate artist Mary Cassatt) because of a law on the books she discovered (impressive research her brand) that screamed out for Mary’s mettle. For her “perseverance and courage and dedication.”

That law is key to Emma and Claire’s story, something readers must find out about for themselves. Sorry to be cryptic, but you wouldn’t want me to spoil the mystery. You’ll learn what happens to them soon enough, about a hundred pages in at the end of Book One. Given this is a 400 page novel, Oliveira’s longest, and you have two more parts to go, clearly it’s not a straightforward mystery. The novelist’s imagination doesn’t work that way.

In this atmospheric historical timepiece, she immerses us in a “city of graft,” corrupt not only in its business dealings but in the morality of its conduct regarding girls and women.

Prostitution was big business in those bygone days. One, Darlene, whom Mary tends to at her frowned upon clinic, will tug at your heart for she does good here.

Other do-gooders include some characters reintroduced from My Name is Mary Sutter. Yes, this is a stand-alone novel. Even if you read the author’s award-winning debut, that was years ago. Mary is indelible but, like me, you may need some reminding about the others.

Mary is now forty and married twelve years to William Stipps, the elder civil war surgeon who can’t “breathe” without her. After all Mary went through during that war, we shouldn’t be surprised she’s “silvered.” William is an orthopedic surgeon, which makes sense after all the amputations he and Mary performed on the battlefield.

Also back is Mary’s mother Amelia, a midwife who “can make anyone feel at home,” and briefly Bonnie, Amelia’s close friend – the deceased mother of the blizzard girls. Elizabeth still lives with Mary and her mother for she’s orphaned too, reeling from the “sadness of losing everything she loved.” The “Sutter women bore up at all times,” whereas Elizabeth represents the fragility of an artist painfully unsure of herself. When the girls go missing, she flees with Amelia from Paris where she was studying at the Paris Conservatory of Music.

Deaths from war and childbirth – and now merciless weather – created “convoluted” relationships, people caring for one another as if they were family rather than looser connections and friendships. That’s the situation here. So when ten-year-old Emma and seven-year-old Claire disappear Mary, William, Amelia, and Elizabeth all go searching as if the girls were their own flesh and blood.

One of the joys in this somber story is Mary and William’s marriage. “Neither of them could think of a time together when either of them let each other down.” They don’t let us down either as they fight for justice and equality.

All of Robin Oliveira’s novels stand out for their strong feminist messaging. Winter Sisters feels like crystal-ball timing: the 19th century converging into the Me Too Movement.

Also on display and timely is the wicked “power of money” that “brought loyalty where none was deserved. It bent minds and curated behavior. It solved problems.” Greed, bribery, and betrayal also begets egregious crimes, whether a century ago or unfolding today.

Albany’s weather also wreaks havoc. After the blizzard came, mighty floods – termed freshets – that overwhelm the city, once the snow melts. The Hudson is a river of ice – floes, another meteorological term I hadn’t known. Albany is a city of bells that ring out flood warnings, though it seems nothing could stop the tragedy that ensues.

Tom Brokaw, the veteran journalist, recently predicted the 21st century will be remembered as the century of the woman. Thus, a 19th century novel makes a hard-hitting contribution to a 21st century cause.


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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

The remarkable journey of an artist (Shitang, Wenling, Beijing, China to London; 1970s – 2016): Starving is the first word that comes to mind reflecting on the vitality and accomplishments of an artist growing up under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. For it seems Xiaolu Guo has been starving much of her life. Starved for food, family, freedoms, affection, love, individuality, dignity.

Calling herself a “peasant warrior,” Guo poignantly traces in vignettes of memories her forty years living under abominable conditions. Her perseverance, blossoming, eloquence, and the productivity and diversity of her works is all the more remarkable given the unrelenting cycle of abuse she endured – sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual. A life she says that didn’t even start until she was twenty-one, when she penned her first novel. Even when the memoirist left China for London at thirty, she describes her next ten years as a “cultural orphan.”

“Westerners will never understand the Chinese unless they go through the misery and poverty we did,” says Guo, whose hunger for Western literature and Western films sustained her when “desolation came and swallowed me.”

Named one of the Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Guo is part of what’s called the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who came after the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 1989. Drawn to the angry young artists of her generation who went underground to pursue their art since the State censored or jailed those who did not conform to it’s endorsement of art: propaganda. There can a time, though, when the writer-filmmaker recognized the only route for artistic freedom and creativity was to leave China, the homeland that shaped and traumatized her.

That trauma is what makes her art profoundly essential to her being. Recipient of numerous awards for her novels, films, poetry, short stories, and screenplays – a body of work considered autobiographical, speaking to themes echoing an impoverished, unhappy life marked by “ice-cold loneliness.” The artist recalls “one of the happiest moments in my life” at six, when she met art students who painted out the bleakness into something magical. Other good things you can pinpoint: a couple of breaks that led to her artistic development, though she earned those with feverish dedication amidst fierce competition, and bonding with her biological father, whom she first met at fourteen.

Also stunning is Guo wrote her memoir before the Me Too Movement. The China she writes of – in the seventies, eighties, and nineties – chillingly devalued women. Her parents gave her away (because they had a son? her father was imprisoned in a labor camp?, she’ll never really know) to a couple who lived in a mountain village raising yams and goats. Severely malnourished, they then gave her away to her grandparents who lived in an isolated “typhoon drenched” fishing village, Shitang, surrounded by the East China Sea – “always brown, churning the refuse and rubbish the villagers dumped in it every day.” By age two, she’d been orphaned twice.

Her grandmother, “the most humble person I have ever known,” was subjected to feudal Chinese customs: illiterate, with her feet tightly bound causing her great difficulty walking, her body bent over. Her grandfather was a “bitter, failed fisherman” after his boat was seized under the 1970 Fish Farming Collective, eventually committing suicide. He repeatedly beat her “voiceless” and “nameless” grandmother, who derived strength praying to the Goddess of Mercy, who “bestowed her compassion on all those grief-stricken wives and unlucky daughters.”

Guan Yin, “Goddess of Mercy”
By Haa900 [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Nine Continents opens with an epilogue as Guo is now forty, having just given birth to a baby girl in London. Motherhood cannot be an easy feat for a woman who first met her biological mother in adolescence, leaving behind her grandmother to attend school in her parents’ compound in Wenling. A mother with a “heart of stone” who ignored and beat her.

Even more disturbing is physical violence on girls and women was apparently the norm in rural China in the seventies. “Where I grew up, every man beats his wife and children.” So too she depicts of the raping of girls. “No wonder Chinese ghost stories know only weeping women looking for justice in the afterlife.”

The author’s benevolent father brightened days when home. A painter for the State yet his artistic soul was tied to the sea, having also grown up in Shitang. People did what they had to do to survive; Guo hungered for more.

Wenling was a different type of village. “This was the China of the early eighties: town and nature, with no real separation of the two.” Rice patties, bamboo trees, residential compounds, and factories (shoes, plastic, silk) all together. “Every adult belonged to a work unit, run by the state.”

Wenling is where filmmaking took root as Guo gathered around a lone television in the compound watching glamorous American and British life. Here is also where she began writing “misty poetry” – “historically free” poems about the “land, the cloud-covered mountains, the foggy sea, ethereal love.”

The memoirist’s father influenced her environmentalism aesthetically and because of the devastating impact of China’s pollution, as he lost his ability to speak due to throat cancer; so many factory workers she knew were also cancer victims. “China has recorded the highest number of deaths due to pollution;” today, the country is working on solutions to this crisis.

Literature offered salvation, comfort, inspiration. Walt Whitman’s “you must travel it [the road] by yourself” was a message that stuck. American and French writers, poets, and film directors are paid tribute throughout.

Around twenty, the author earned one of eleven coveted spots at the Film and Literature Department of the Beijing Film Academy. Dorm life was still regimented like a “military camp” but at long last the author makes a friend, Mengmeng, her roommate, with whom the two open up about their sexual abuse “in the darkness of the girls’ dormitory.” Film school lasted six years, more years of barely sleeping and striving, working intensely by candlelight.

The opportunity to study films didn’t turn out the way the filmmaker hoped for. “In China, creativity meant compromise.” So she applied and won a Chevening scholarship to study documentary filmmaking at Britain’s National Film and Television School in London, where new challenges arose.

Learning English when your native language is visual imagery, coping with the dreary weather, and still very disaffected and terribly lonely, she found London a “hard place to love.” Now writing in English, she “wasn’t sure which was better; being read by thousands in the West but still feeling misunderstood, or being read by very few in a country that understood me perfectly.”

Xiaolu Guo may have felt anonymous for a good deal of her life but when one of her art films was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York “with a full house and then toured hundreds of thousands of international film festivals,” she’d clearly become someone known.

Chinese traditions, sacred writings, superstitions, and folklore appear throughout the telling. The memoir begins with excerpts from one of China’s most beloved pieces of classical literature, Journey to the West. This Taoist and Buddhist legend written in the 16th century introduces each of the five parts of the memoir. While I don’t purport to fully understand the spiritual message, the Monkey King’s struggles seem to foretell Guo’s.

Yet for all the “deadness at the centre of my emotional life,” Xiaolu Guo has written a life-affirming book. A timeless and universal plea cherishing human rights for all.


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